AHVS 364 Documentary Film Essay

AHVS 364—Documentary Film

Essay Questions

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Answer one of the following questions in a 7-10 (double-spaced) page essay. Your essay should be typed or word-processed. This assignment is worth 45% of your final grade.

1. It is possible to say […] that the three main artistic modes of film were present in embryo form almost from the outset: narrative fiction, documentary, and experimental. (Jack C. Ellis and Virginia Wright Wexman, A History of Film).

The “creative impulses” identified by Ellis and Wexman are useful categorizations to apply when discussing film history as a whole. It is clear, however, that such distinct divisions do not always contain or describe individual films. Discuss the use of techniques borrowed from narrative fiction or experimental film in at least two documentaries (at least one of which should be taken from the course screenings).

2. Lenin called film “our most important art,” indicating his recognition of the potential of film to function as a propaganda device. Clearly, totalitarian regimes have embraced film’s ability to persuade, but one can also identify a similar desire in films produced by democratic governments (Women Are Warriors, for example) as well as in “activist” documentaries such as Why We Fight. Discuss the persuasive qualities of documentary. You can consider both negative and positive aspects of propaganda in your answer.

3. The techniques employed by the Observational mode attempt to persuade the viewer that s/he is really watching “reality”. And yet, paradoxically, the (hand-held) camera as “fly on the wall” reminds us that there is, in fact, a cameraperson recording the events depicted in the film. Among the consequences of adopting an observational stance are the ethical dilemmas resulting from an avoidance of direct involvement, and the possibility that the camera’s presence alters the reality it attempts to depict. Discuss the significance of the attempt at “objectivity” in documentary. To what extent do filmmakers succeed in erasing their presence? Although you are asked to discuss this question in relation to the Observational, you are not limited to that particular documentary style.

* Here’s what I usually suggest people focus on if they do this assignment:

1. What is the film about?

2. What makes you want to make this particular film?

3. Why is this best served by a documentary (instead of a newspaper/magazine article, etc.)?

4. Which mode(s) would you use & why? Which would you not use & why not? This allows you to use course films as examples to explain the kind of film you envision.

5. What ethical issues do you imagine the documentary might raise, & how would you address them?

Of course, you’re welcome to raise other issues—stylistic choices, for example, or target audience—but your proposal must address these specific concerns.

The writing style can be relatively informal, & you can use first-person. The main concern is to make your proposal as persuasive as you can, which means taping $20 bills to the back of each page, as well as presenting a convincing argument in support of your proposed film. It should run to roughly the same length as is expected of the essay (7-10 pages, double-spaced). And feel free to come talk to me if you want to bounce ideas around, either before/after class or during office hours. Or email me and we can discuss things that way.

Course screenings:

May 10: Winged Migration, Jacques Perrin (France. 2001), 89 min., colour.

Available at: https://media3-criterionpic-com.ezproxy.library.uvic.ca/htbin/wwform/006?T= MON1354

Screening: Nanook of the North, Robert Flaherty (USA/France 1922), 65 min., b+w (silent).

Available at: https://uvic.kanopy.com/video/nanook-north-0

Screening: Man with a Movie Camera, Dziga Vertov (USSR, 1929), 80 min, b+w (silent).

Available at: https://uvic.kanopy.com/video/man-movie-camera

Screening: Why We Fight, Eugene Jarecki (USA/UK/France/Canada/Denmark 2005), 98 min., b+w and colour

Available at: https://media3-criterionpic-com.ezproxy.library.uvic.ca/htbin/wwform/006?T=MON1348

Screening: Program of N.F.B. shorts.

Screening: Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, Alanis Obomsawin (NFB 1993), 119 min., colour.

Available at: https://www.nfb.ca/film/kanehsatake_270_years_of_resistance_mohawk/

Screening: Grey Gardens, Albert Maysles, David Maysles (USA 1976), 96 min., colour.

Available at: https://uvic.kanopy.com/video/grey-gardens

Screening: Mr. Death, Errol Morris (USA 1999), 92 min., colour & b+w. (To be screened in class).

Screening: Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, Jennifer Baichwal, Edward Burtynsky, Nicholas de Pencier (Canada 2018), 87 min., colour.

Available at: https://uvic.kanopy.com/video/anthropocene-human-epoch

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